Pat Wellenbach | AP The end of an inter-duct tube is seen at Great Works Internet in Biddeford, April 6, 2010. The tubes provide protection for fiber optic cables.
It is impossible to compete today without fast internet, but slow speeds are still the norm in many parts of Maine. Just 12 percent of Maine households and businesses are considered to have access to effective broadband, according to the ConnectME Authority.
The state’s rural nature presents a chicken-or-the-egg scenario when it comes to making improvements: Rural areas need broadband to be economically competitive, but often there aren’t enough people willing to pay for high-speed internet to make an investment in upgrades worthwhile for a private company.
Calais and Baileyville in Washington County saw a need and did something about it. Last year, they came together to form the nonprofit Downeast Broadband Utility, and this year, they intend to be the first municipalities to take advantage of new rules that give them a right to attach fiber-optic cables to utility poles.
That detail is key. Fiber-optic cables are designed to transmit data. They can send it faster than copper wire networks originally built to transmit telephone signals and cable television. But before new rules went into effect in January, pole owners didn’t have to respond to municipalities that wanted to create their own broadband networks.
Now they do, and Calais and Baileyville are first in line to take advantage of the opportunity. Attaching cables to utility poles will be the biggest cost of the approximately $2.5 million project, which aims to connect fiber to 97 percent of area homes and businesses. Construction is expected to begin this year.
In addition to helping the project get started, having set rules will help clarify costs and project timetables. It should also provide a clearer path for more towns and cities that want to fund their own broadband networks. Other places should pay attention to what’s happening Down East.
There are a few things to watch. Perhaps the most important will be whether the company, or companies, offering faster service over the lines will price it affordably, which will be a factor in determining whether local residents and businesses purchase it. A faster network won’t mean much if people don’t use it.
It will also be helpful to know if the project ultimately has an economic impact, perhaps on household income, employment or business growth. Knowing these details will better inform other communities examining whether to pursue a similar route.
Calais and Baileyville deserve kudos for pursuing a new approach to faster internet. It would have been easier to give in to demographic forces, but instead, there is energy behind trying something new. Other Maine communities can learn not just from their methods but their tenacity.
Follow BDN Editorial & Opinion on Facebook for the latest opinions on the issues of the day in Maine.
George Danby | BDN
It’s inspiring to see what one small community can do to change the trajectory of its future. The Cranberry Isles, a tiny year-round island community off the coast of Mount Desert Island, just finished the first phase of a fiber-to-the-home community broadband network.
Just a year ago, residents had internet that was sometimes too slow to send an email. Upload and download speeds on the Cranberries now exceed 100 mbps, meaning they are able to join the global economy with faster internet than most of the U.S.’s metropolitan areas. Both the U.S. Department of Agriculture and the ConnectME Authority were clearly impressed with the ambition of this project. The recently awarded $1.3 million in federal funding will help cover almost all of the construction costs.
Broadband is so important to the future of the community that residents even voted to issue a bond themselves if that was the only way to make sure the project was built. The mostly volunteer broadband committee worked tirelessly to hold community meetings, create informational fliers, and write hundreds of pages of grant applications. They partnered with Axiom Technologies to design and construct an economically viable network.
Through it all, the Island Institute has been proud to assist with the community process and support the community leaders doing the hard work. It is a true public-private partnership where everyone has skin in the game.
This sort of public-private partnership is one model for the other 36 communities working with the Island Institute to improve their broadband capabilities. Across all of these communities, local leaders are focusing on broadband because it can diversify career opportunities, help strengthen small businesses and give elders access to telehealth to help them stay in their communities longer. It also provides educational opportunities for students and adult learners.
As contradictory as it may sound, reliable high-speed internet can help communities maintain their traditional way of life.
Market forces alone will not provide broadband for Maine’s rural communities, as internet-service providers need to make sure their investments will pay off. Often that’s not possible in much of rural Maine where there are too few customers per mile of broadband infrastructure. Residents in these small communities are taking matters into their own hands to avoid falling behind the rest of the global economy.
Existing state and federal policies to subsidize rural internet access are failing communities like Baileyville, Calais, Penobscot, Millinocket, East Millinocket, Medway and Islesboro, forcing them to solve their broadband problems themselves. In some places, internet capabilities are so unreliable that businesses struggle to run credit card machines, yet this internet access is often considered good enough to prevent them from qualifying for numerous state or federal programs.
Most existing government programs are designed to make sure everyone has some level of connection — not provide world-class speeds and a connection to the global economy. Providing bad internet doesn’t work anymore, and we need to stop trying to solve the internet access challenges of the last decade.
Instead, we need to effectively leverage limited public funding by making long-term investments through public-private partnerships to improve the business case for providing broadband to rural Maine.
We should be inspired by the Cranberry Isles and the other Maine communities utilizing public-private partnerships to help ensure a bright future. Merely being connected isn’t good enough to increase economic stability and growth or attract and retain new families. Government funding should reflect this. Maine shouldn’t continue to resign itself to being one of the worst connected states in the country.
Closing the digital divide by connecting all of Maine with broadband infrastructure is one of the few economic development challenges facing Maine that we know how to, and can actually, solve. The next two to three years is a critical time for Maine to make significant investments in broadband infrastructure.
Let’s make sure we make the right investments and send a strong message that Maine is open for businesses — now and for the future.
Briana Warner is the economic development director at the Island Institute. Nick Battista is the policy officer at the Island Institute.
By Tracy Scheckel OTELCO
What Defines Broadband?
When cable companies began to provide Internet access to consumers, the service was faster than traditional DSL and dial-up, and the industry coined the term to mean high-speed Internet access. Today, broadband is defined by the speed of upstream and downstream data transmission.
Who Defines Broadband?
On a national level, the current FCC standard is 25/3 Mbps, and has been a moving target for years. To confuse things even further, the speed requirements for the Connect America Fund broadband (CAF) model is 10 / 1 Mbps.
The ConnectME Authority in Maine is a quasi-government entity that administers a grant program for broadband infrastructure and planning initiatives. A recent change in the rule under which the Authority operates allows the group to adjust the definition of broadband in order to determine which locations are unserved and thus eligible for grant funding. For some time, the threshold has been 1.5 Mbps/768 Kbps meaning that any location receiving faster speeds isn’t eligible for funding. Even by FCC standards, the ConnectME threshold is inadequate, so the Authority decided to look at a potential adjustment of its definition of adequate broadband.
A publicly noticed meeting of the Board along with various stakeholders was conducted on April 9. Part of the impetus for the meeting was to help Authority staff clarify a definition in order to have a better footing with legislators in Washington as they work to parse out funds for broadband infrastructure.
Most of the Internet providers in Maine were represented and a lengthy discussion continued for the better part of 2 hours. The group ultimately vetted three potential standards: 10/1, 25/3, and 10/10. The governing rule states:
The Authority must base its criteria on the state of the market as well as the performance necessary to meet the current broadband needs of common applications and network services in use in the State.
The Telecommunication Association of Maine (TAM) indicated support for 10/1 service as did Consolidated Communications and Spectrum; the Island Institute supported a minimum of 10 Mbps upload speed, Maine Broadband Coalition Co-Chair Peggy Schaffer, OTELCO, and a citizen from Waldoboro suggested a 10/10 symmetrical bandwidth.
Authority member, Ralph Johnson is the Regional CIO at MaineHealth and made an economic development case for symmetrical bandwidth. He questioned whether Maine is building broadband for consumers or economic development. He felt that consumers – taking things FROM the Internet — could do with asymmetrical speed, but that in order for economic development to benefit, being able to send things upstream is critical.
Dr. Susan Woods is another member of the Board who founded of HiTecHiTouch, LLC, to advance health technology innovation, telehealth and virtual care, and digital inclusion. She noted that a minimum recommended connection for one person engaged in telemedicine with a healthcare provider is 15/5.
Once all discussion was complete, Authority Chair and University of Maine System CIO, Dick Thompson asked for a recommendation from the Board. Ralph Johnson moved, and had seconded, a 10/10 standard which failed with a 2 – 2 vote of the four Authority members present. Thompson then moved 10/1 and couldn’t get a second, and Johnson in an attempt at compromise, also failed to get a second on a 25/3 proposal.
While there was compelling testimony from all sides, it simply wasn’t enough to bring the attending Authority members to a recommendation. Heather Johnson, ConnectME Authority Director, is hoping for more input from providers, citizens, and any other stakeholders or interested parties. That input will be reviewed and discussed at the June 22 meeting of the ConnectME Authority.
Ultimately, should the Authority determine a new standard, by rule, there would be a 30 day period for additional public comment before the change could be enacted.
Important to Note
There is a distinct difference between the minimum standard for service and the build-to speeds set forth in the grant RFP. The threshold that the Board is trying to determine is the benchmark that designates who is considered unserved and therefore eligible for funding.
Because the Authority is empowered to carry out the state broadband policy, and one of the goals is to see that there is secure, reliable, competitive and sustainable forward-looking infrastructure that can meet future broadband needs, it is expected that the build-to requirements will look to the future. The current build-to standard is 10/10, it stands to reason that should the Authority set a new minimum standard, that the build-to standard will also increase to something more futureproof. For now, the minimum standard is the first step.
What are your thoughts?
What do you think the absolute minimum service standard should be? Should the requirement require symmetrical speeds? Contact Heather.Johnson@maine.gov, 207-624-9838 or Brooke.Johnson@maine.gov, 207-624-9849 before the June 22 meeting to share your thoughts.
Recently, I worked with a City Councilor in Cambridge, Massachusetts to try and help the Council overcome a severe case of community broadband sticker shock. It seems that the town had hired a consultant who had submitted a $200 million estimate for a city-wide fiber to the home network without first understanding what the City’s appetite would be for such expenditure – or, indeed, if the network being proposed was really necessary to achieve the City’s main goals.
Maybe it’s because I’ve spent so much of my career selling things, but I would never deliver a proposal without knowing if my client had the budget for it – especially if my proposal was overkill for my customer’s pain points. Indeed, the consultant’s entire approach seems backward to me, as if they knew that the answer was a town-owned fiber network before they asked a single question.
Cambridge’s Pain Points
At least for the couple of people I spoke with in Cambridge, their main interests lay in two specific areas:
- Digital Equity – Their main concern was in ensuring that residents of the City’s low-income areas and housing projects had access to affordable High-Speed Internet. Comcast’s Internet Essentials was the only option for these customers, and consensus was that it wasn’t adequate to the needs of families.
- Competition – The City was also interested in having a competitive marketplace for Internet access. They felt this would keep prices down, give the customers choices, and improve the quality of service.
At the same time, the city had a lot of logistical questions about what it would mean to own and operate a utility, given that unlike many Massachusetts towns and cities, they didn’t currently have a municipal electric utility, or a real desire to start one.
Solutions to Specific Problems
Of course, a city-owned fiber to the home network would address both of the key pain points, but there are other solutions that can address the city’s primary concerns for less money and minimize the need for the city to take too large a role in operating the network.
- MTU-NDU Networks – The city’s most immediate concern was in providing something faster than Comcast’s Internet Essentials product to low income households. To the extent that these low income families are in city-owned housing projects and/or other forms of apartment buildings, a Multi-Tenant building strategy could cover a significant part of this population for a relatively small cost. In some cases, city-owned fiber is already in the building. In these cases it should be quite cost effective to provide Internet to the building over this fiber, and distribute to tenants using existing wiring and Very high bit rate DSL (VDSL), which is capable of delivering speeds in excess of 100mbps over short distances.
- Hybrid Networks – In many cases, fiber-fed wireless networks can cost effectively extend the reach of new or existing fiber networks. One example of this would be to work outward from the existing fiber-fed buildings in the previous example using point-to-point wireless technologies to connect other multi-tenant buildings to the hub site. This is the model currently used by NetBlazr to provide competitive access in Boston and Newark. Alternately, point-to-multipoint wireless transceivers can be pole mounted or mounted to buildings to serve multiple single family homes in a “fiber to the pole” deployment.
- Dig Once – Cambridge didn’t want to operate a network, but did want to promote a competitive marketplace for broadband. One solution that could promote this goal over the long term while requiring minimal construction costs and management headaches would be for the city to bury conduit whenever the streets are open and operate an open access conduit system, similar to the system currently operated successfully in Lincoln, NE. City owned conduit could be leased to ISP’s interested in providing competitive broadband services, greatly reducing construction costs for market entrants.
- Local Improvement Districts – Another way of delivering competitive services over the middle to long term to residents who can afford to pay would be the creation of Local Improvement Districts, which residents could join by paying their portion of connection costs up-front or by a direct 20-year assessment on their property. The resulting network could be operated by the city as an open access dark fiber network, with the fibers leased to ISP’s that wish for service in these districts. It reduces public exposure to risk by guaranteeing the recovery of construction costs and giving people a strong incentive to retain their existing service. At the same time, because it is an opt-in solution it greatly reduced the threat of political opposition; those who don’t want the service don’t have to pay. Ammon, ID is perhaps the best known example of this.
Avoid Community Broadband Sticker Shock in your Plan
These are just a few strategies for solving the specific problems your community faces in situations where you can’t afford, or win support for, a town or city wide broadband network. A combination of strategies may in fact be the best solution for the mix of problems you have, so make sure you clearly understand your goals first, and find a partner who is willing to work with you to design a mix of solutions to meet your goals. If your community is facing a broadband challenge – I’d love to talk with you about it. Please contact me.
I’d like to thank Chris Mitchell from the Institute for Local Self-Reliance for his help with my presentation to Cambridge and by extension, this blog post.